Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Need to Win


The idea of winning is woven into the fabric of popular culture. Everybody loves a winner. "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" has not only become an American credo for sports, but suggests what's wrong with this type of competitive anti-spirit. The need to win is rooted in anxiety and fear; fear of failure, fear of looking bad, and the fear of being scorned round out this pathology.

A Taoist would say that winners and losers are two sides of the same coin, but the truth is that losing or setbacks are subjective. A short term loss could be seen as a long term gain. It's all a matter of perspective and what we can learn from the experience.

Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate in Japan, was strongly opposed to competition. Anyone who engaged in jiyu-kumite (free-style sparring) in his school was summarily thrown out. Funakoshi's karate techniques were based on bunkai (self-defense applications) which were unusable in sportive matches. Still, I believe sparring is essential for any stylist because it forces the student into a state of no-expectations. In tournaments you're dealing with total strangers. You don't know your opponents and they don't know you. Rules notwithstanding, anything can still happen. Embracing uncertainty is part of the martial way, something that cannot be acquired from practicing kata or pre-set drills. But vying for trophies to the exclusion of all else is ill-advised. Martial arts in their truest form are not games to be won.

A karate competitor I once knew was unbeatable on the tournament circuit. He won a number of grand championship titles for both kata and kumite. Then one day it happened: he lost. He never competed again.

The Need to Win

When an archer is shooting for nothing
He has all his skill.
If he shoots for a brass buckle
He is already nervous.
If he shoots for a prize of gold
He goes blind
Or sees two targets-
He is out of his mind!

His skill has not changed. But the prize
Divides him. He cares.
He thinks more of winning
Than of shooting -
And the need to win.

- Chuang Tzu

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10 Comments:

Blogger Rick said...

In a self defense situation, winning IS the only option.

The trouble with pre arranged forms, bunkai applications, etc., is that your opponent can react in completely unexpected ways. As you said, you need to be able to adapt to the unexpected.

10:03 PM  
Blogger Charles James said...

Onaga Sensei, a teacher of Okinawan "Ti", says you must not think of winning. You must think of not losing.

In my dojo I try to remove all competition. I try to instill in students that the only competition they must endure is the one within themselves.

I use yakusoku kumite and uke to tori teaching so there are no winners and no losers. Everyone learns and improves.

If they defeat themselves then they are a true practitioner.

I use tournaments, it a student wishes, to teach them to work under pressure. They are not there to win trophies or titles they are there to experience the stress of life through one on one kumite with strangers and so on...

much like you mention in your post.

9:27 AM  
Blogger [Mat] said...

I remember losing and the pain it gives.

Physical and emotional.

It's very good motivation.

But since then, I have stopped competition.

I understand, now, that competition is a by-product. Necessary, but not an end onto itself. And that proper training will give proper results.

But hey, that took 10 years to get...

Good post again. If I ever get asked what one should read before getting involved, I'd surely point him here.

10:51 AM  
Anonymous Black Belt Mama said...

Have you read "The Book of Five Rings" by Miyamoto Musashi? Actually, I think it might have even been you who recommended I read that during my injury break. What I found interesting is that the need to win is not just an American thing. Musashi had much the same opinion. In fact, his was that you win in any way you can, even if it's underhanded. He was a big fan of psychologically defeating his opponents before the actual physical battle ever happened.

I personally love competition in general, but have found that I really have no desire for it in the martial arts. I haven't competed in a single tournament as of yet and don't really have a desire to do so (unless you count Dojo Rat's campaign for me to become a "wrestler"). ;-)

1:59 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

Now, having said all of that, there is going from a martial art (in which self defense is the goal) to a true budo (in which self development is the goal). That’s another level entirely.

The way I see it, there’s a yin/yang relationship here. If you can’t fight, you’re not doing it right. If you’re doing it right, then you can use your practice as a _way_.

3:38 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Rick:

In a self defense situation, winning IS the only option.

Right. Actually, my thoughts on winning were concerned with sports.
----------

Charles:

Onaga Sensei, a teacher of Okinawan "Ti", says you must not think of winning. You must think of not losing.

In my school we say "don't get hit" when sparring. Very similar.

In my dojo I try to remove all competition. I try to instill in students that the only competition they must endure is the one within themselves.

That's what it's all about. We can only compare ourselves to ourselves.
----------

Mat:

But since then, I have stopped competition.

Competing's great, but the day of the tournament is a drag. It's a long day and as you know, the higher ranks go last. If I ever run a tournament, the black belts go first!
----------

Black Belt Mama:

Have you read "The Book of Five Rings" by Miyamoto Musashi? Actually, I think it might have even been you who recommended I read that during my injury break.
What I found interesting is that the need to win is not just an American thing. Musashi had much the same opinion.In fact, his was that you win in any way you can, even if it's underhanded.


Yes and yes. It's true, Musashi wasn't exactly a good sport. The guy had some issues. But obviously there's a big difference between taking 2nd place in a point-match and having your head cut off.

Musashi's forte was indeed strategy, but he wasn't interested in one-upmanship. Certainly not in the American ego-driven sense. In Chuang Tzu's poem, the archer has lost touch with the present moment and has invoked an ego, both of which pose limitations on our ability to perform. (If you become a wrestler let me be your manager. We'll make millions!) ;-)

11:57 PM  
Blogger Becky said...

If I ever run a tournament, the black belts go first!

Our local tournaments used to do it that way, but all the black belts would leave as soon as their competition was over and they wouldn't have enough left to judge the other events. Not significant. I just thought I'd mention it.

I am not particularly competitive by nature, and haven't competed in a single tournament--except one for "funsies". Even in that one, I didn't spar. I believe the primary benefit of tournaments is learning to perform under pressure, and in front of people--especially people you don't know. I kind of wish I'd competed some before my black belt test. Maybe I would have been less nervous.

5:09 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Becky:

I believe the primary benefit of tournaments is learning to perform under pressure

Right. It's not life and death, but competing is never easy. And no matter how many you enter, you still get the butterflies. But you also get to watch other people and pick up ideas.

12:17 AM  
Blogger supergroup7 said...

I wonder if the whole concept of needing to win is centered on our own self perception, and ego.

Many people feel that the only way to be valuable is to be superior to everyone else. They see themselves as lesser, and unworthy if they cannot be the "winner". Their focus is centered on feeding their ego by successes. However, there will come a time when they will find an emptiness to the winning, and their spirit will ask them "Isn't there more than this?"

I believe that this is when the true spirituality of Martial arts comes into play because now their training becomes to challenge themselves to defeat themselves rather than their opponent.

I remember Sensei Gichin Funakoshi saying something to the effect that in karate we seek to be weak. I never understood that statement until I looked at the Martial arts spirituality wherein we work on our inner selves.

12:46 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Mireille:

Many people feel that the only way to be valuable is to be superior to everyone else. They see themselves as lesser, and unworthy if they cannot be the "winner".

That's my article in a nutshell. Hey look, everybody likes to win at something at sometime or another, whether it's a karate match or an argument. It's human nature, but when winning becomes obsessive things get ugly.

However, there will come a time when they will find an emptiness to the winning, and their spirit will ask them "Isn't there more than this?"

There's more, but not that way of course. Anything that's totally self-absorbed is ultimately unsatisfying. Altruism or service is the way, but that's another story altogether.

12:01 AM  

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